Currently available written records and published information on Sanyu show that his earliest oil painting with dated inscription is from 1929, by which time pink had become a principal colour in his tonal palette. Sanyu's choice of pink was a deliberate one and it became central to his creative work, appearing in his paintings of human figures, still lifes, animal subjects, and landscapes. For more than a decade afterwards it was still a constant presence, the colour he favoured as he explored ways of shaping forms and building spatial effects, and it helped bring him to the first peak of his artistic career.
In the book Colours for Your Every Mood, well-known colour specialist Leatrice Eiseman points out that pink's popularity took off in the 1920s. Due to the availability of makeup and
its popular acceptance, fashionable women took to wearing rouge on their cheeks, a fact that is reflected in Sanyu's watercolour portrait sketches, showing that the artist took note of the trend. From the 1920s to the 1940s, pink was also becoming a sought-after colour in home furnishings and accessories, though at this time, it was not at all associated exclusively with feminine characteristics-in fact, articles appearing in the New York Times in 1905 and in Parents magazine in 1939 emphasized that its closeness to reddish hues, symbolic of passionate feelings, made it more of a masculine colour.
Sanyu-La Rose - A Concept of Space in Pink
"I don't have anything in my life. I am simply a painter. As for my work, when one looks at it, one knows well enough what it is all aboutK All that my works declare is simplicity."
In historical context, the origins of Picasso's "Rose Period" bear some similarities to Sanyu's fascination with the colour in the late 1920s. In 1904, when Picasso was living in Paris, he met and fell in love with Fernande Olivier. After this watershed event, he left behind the cool melancholy of his Blue Period and began to use thick pink and brick red hues. In 1925, at the Academie de Grande Chaumiere, Sanyu met fellow student Marcelle Charlotte Guyot de la Hardrouyere, and after a three-year courtship the two were married. During this period Sanyu enjoyed great stability and happiness, both emotionally and in terms of his material circumstances, and it may have been this fortuitous combination of inner and outer wellbeing that spurred him to choose pink as the central tone in his palette. But whereas Picasso used pinks with earthier hues, Sanyu tended toward purer pink tones with high colour saturation, accompanied by subtle changes in his overall colour schemes, depending on the subject being portrayed. In general, lighter pinks evoke soft, gentle, romantic, feelings of endearment; rose pinks, which contain an extra tinge of grey, represent comfort, peace and calm, loveliness, and subtlety. Brighter pinks symbolize excitement, happiness, passion, and vivaciousness. Pink tones not only evoke feelings of warmth and well-being for both artist and viewer, but in Sanyu's paintings, they help inject a sense of greater life and vitality into the plants and animals he portrayed.
In the late '20s Sanyu met the well-known writer and collector Henri-Pierre Roche, who was among Sanyu's earliest and most dedicated supporters. The two established a solid working relationship, but also became good friends. It was Roche, incidentally, an influential figure in
France's flourishing cultural and artistic scene, who in 1906 introduced Picasso to members of the Stein family who were then living in France; they became dedicated patrons of the young Picasso, collecting key works from his Blue Period to his later Cubist phase and contributed greatly towards the peak of the artist's career. Roche, who owned a number of works by major artists of the Fauvist and Cubist movements, likewise expressed great admiration for Sanyu's work, and La Rose (Lot 1010) presented here was a part of Roche's collection for over 30 years. In 1969, it was purchased from Roche's spouse by the current collector, and following its 80- year period of ownership by those two collectors, Christie's Hong Kong now presents La Rose at auction for the first time ever.
Analysis of Sanyu's paintings from the 1930s shows that the artist typically employed three to four main types of colour combinations, with palettes centring most often around opalescent white, ink black, pink, and deep blue. He frequently contrasted tones with high colour saturation against ones with lower colour saturation, one of his creative purposes at this time being to reduce colour to a minimum, while maximizing its atmospheric and visual impact. Despite the fact that pink was one of his most often-used colours during this period, it is rare to see a painting such as La Rose, which sets the deep fuchsia pinks of the flower petals against a pale pink background, so that aside from the brown tones of the wooden pedestal, virtually the entire work seems composed in shades of pink and white. Sanyu here deliberately avoids colour contrasts between low-colour-value and cool tones. Instead, in a very direct and immediate way, imbues the entire canvas with the character of these pink tones, so that beyond being just a still life with roses, La Rose also evokes those further meanings attached to the colour "rose."
While the composition of La Rose is quite similar to another rose-themed Sanyu work from 1931, Pink Rose in a White Vase (Fig. 1), a comparison of the two highlights Sanyu's different approaches to the formal elements that make up these paintings. In Pink Rose in a White Vase, the subject is outlined in clean, flowing lines, while the scattering of rose petals on the tabletop helps establish the surrounding space, so that its presentation of three-dimensional space remains a fairly traditional one. In La Rose, however, the artist employs a combination of solid and more indistinct lines, their juxtaposition further heightening the resonance between solid forms and empty spaces. This more closely links the pink roses, their white stems and leaves, the white vase, and the brown wooden base and highlights the artist's mature grasp of overall structure. Of special interest is the way that Sanyu, when painting the rose petals, adopted the freestyle mogu ("without bones") approach of traditional Chinese bird-and-flower paintings, achieving rich gradations of colour with just a few spontaneous strokes of the brush. In a 1921 double-sided painting by Sanyu and Xu Beihong, Taming the Lions & Study of Peonies (Fig. 2) , washes of gradated colour can also be seen in the petals of Sanyu's peony, and he applies the same technique here in the pink roses of La Rose. What this reveals is not just his control, ten years later, of a Western medium of a very different nature, but also the deep vein of traditional Chinese culture beneath. No longer setting the roses against leaves and stems in deeper colours, Sanyu instead applies thick layers of whitish pigments, hen pulls the brush through them to carve out the details and contour lines of stems and leaves. The finely detailed hollowing-out effect resembles a similar technique used on porcelains from the ancient Cizhou kilns in China, in which flower designs were created by lines that revealed the underlying porcelain substrate beneath the glaze. Just as Western modernism was attempting to reinterpret three-dimensional space, Sanyu was returning to traditional Chinese crafts in his paintings, exploring the relationship between line and subject.
In the background of La Rose, Sanyu decided against a single already-mixed shade, and instead mixed the pigments directly on the canvas. The effect created by the slightly uneven mix of white pigments is reminiscent of the heavy mists in Chinese landscape paintings, so that the background sometimes seems to lie just behind the stems and leaves, and at other times seems more distant. Sanyu's treatment therefore departs from a simple presentation of flat planes, and instead, like the vague, floating mists in those traditional landscape works, the unclear sense of distance implies an undefined space, into which viewers psychologically project their own sense of unlimited, expansive space. In the Eastern tradition, scenic painting must include an awareness of the overall space, a projection of the artist's conception of it; the Western tradition, however, attempts to re-create a space based on direct visual observation. So it is that in the still life genre, a genre popular in both of these traditions, Sanyu's new handling of three-dimensional space escapes from both the realistic presentation of actual scenes and from the fantasies of China's traditional bird-and-flower paintings, a genre too far removed from reality by its large areas of blank white space. By employing an aesthetic borrowed from Chinese landscape painting and its psychological conception of space, Sanyu helps to newly define the relationship between the painting's subject and the viewer, and in La Rose, by melding the Eastern and Western traditions of handling spatial elements, Sanyu breaks through many of the limitations traditionally placed on this subject.
Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardinière-A Work of Self-Contemplation
Currently available publications indicate that during the 1950s Sanyu completed only about 20 works in his series of large-scale, heavily coloured floral compositions. Most of those now reside in the permanent collection of Taiwan's National Museum of History, a collection comprised of works that Sanyu carefully selected in 1962 for his first Asian solo exhibition, which, at the invitation of the Ministry of Education, was held on his return to Taiwan. Because Sanyu's choice of works for that exhibition focused predominantly on these dramatic still lifes, he clearly considered them the finest work of his career. An excellent representative work from the series can be found in this Potted Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardinière (Lot 1009).
As early as the Eastern Han period, Chinese murals depicted floral scenes and bonsai arrangements. As the influence of Daoism grew and members of the scholarly classes yearned more and more for nature, their appreciation grew for cultivated flowers and shrubs, which gradually became one way that these literati could bring nature indoors and feel a connection with the passing of the seasons. For Sanyu, floral still lifes were a major theme from the 1930s to the 1950s. His repeated explorations of these floral arrangements and their symbolic meanings can be seen in the great variety of his flower-and-vase paintings and his still lifes with other plants; for Sanyu, these were a means of presenting nature and all its forms in microcosm. While his paintings of potted flowers reveal only small interior scenes, they nevertheless evoke the artist's contemplation of the whole of nature. Sanyu must have been fond of chrysanthemums, as paintings of that particular flower account for nearly half of his works on flower and plant themes; for the scholarly classes of China too, the chrysanthemum has since ancient times been a subject of lyrical song and poetry. In particular, following the penning of a line in a famous poem by Tao Yuanming, "Gathering chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge, I gaze into the distance and see the southern mountain," the chrysanthemum came to represent the character of scholars and their lives of detachment from worldly affairs. Another poet of the Tang, Bai Juyi, lamented in A White Chrysanthemum for the Chong Yang Festival, "The garden is full of flowers with chrysanthemums in gold, and among them a lonely clump in white adds a touch of frost-just as today, at this banquet, white-haired old men enter among these youths." The poet likens his situation, and the old men joining the banquet, to the chrysanthemums, and finds in them a metaphor for the passage of time and his feelings about how rapidly youth can fade. Sanyu, in Potted in a Blue and White Jardinière, emphasizes the angularity of the chrysanthemum stems with almost 90-degree turns. This emphasizes their erectness and their hardy character in the face of autumn frosts, and conveys the strength with which they reach upward; the result is a metaphor for both the sense of self-worth and the value of all things in nature. Born into well-to-do circumstances yet encountering financial hardship after many years abroad, Sanyu overcame his oppressive situation and projected into his art a sense of contentment with a life well lived in spite of the hardships. Creative work provided comforting emotional release and a path to self-realization; it was the embodiment of all that was significant and valuable in the artist's life.
Sanyu's painting underwent a marked changed after the 1950s, as ever-bolder colours and compositions revealed an intense drive to achieve new breakthroughs. Just as Europe slipped into recession after World War II, Sanyu found himself in difficult financial circumstances as well. To maintain his income, he took up work at a furniture maker from his own native province, drawing patterns and designs and doing lacquering and staining. This work experience helped spark important new developments in his painting, as the brilliant colours of Chinese folk design and its primitive lines encouraged experimentation. At the same time, because of Sanyu's long sojourn in France, his growing age and the constant yearning for his homeland, have inevitably made his paintings a vehicle for the projection and release of his feelings. In Potted Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardinière, Sanyu chooses a background of heavy, intense reds to set off the fresh and elegant chrysanthemums, a choice of colour that further heightens their special characteristics and symbolic meanings. The details of the painting reveal influences of Chinese folk arts, for example in the flowers' green calyxes and the green edges of their white petals, which show traces of Prussian blue, grass green, and tangerine. Sanyu applies these colours in thin, semi-transparent layers, helping them blend seamlessly with the deep red background, yet creating a subtle sense of layering against the smoothness of the picture surface. In Sanyu's composition, which does not present the flowers on a realistic scale relative to the jardinière and tabletop, it becomes clear that the artist has chosen an idealized and conceptualized presentation of his subject. The intent is not merely to depict the flowers and leaves of a still life: instead, Sanyu engaged in repeated observation of his subject over a significant period, and by building on the Chinese tradition of "painting from life" (where "life" includes vivid reality, vitality, and a sense of the living energies within the subject), Sanyu arrives at a full expression of both the outer appearance of the flowers and their inner spirit. The Chinese literati often injected a sense of subjective feeling, emotion, and imagination into their subjects, creating a special liveliness through the interaction of self and subject. In Potted Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardinière, Sanyu not only extends the tradition of the flower-and-bird paintings of the Chinese literati; the work can also be seen as a projection of the artist's self. The solitary artist living in France, tirelessly continuing his creative work there for over 40 years, is like the solitary but proud flowers of the painting, continuing to flower fully and richly.
Literature has been categorized as a temporal art, and painting as a spatial art. But Potted Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardinière nevertheless exhibits an ingenious feature, in the expression of its lines and the building of its forms, that allows it to be viewed either from a quiet, still perspective, or as a work in motion. The stems of the central subject of the painting, first of all, extend in different directions, but their angles lead to a convergence in the painting's center; the leaves, on the other hand, complement each other in a more dense grouping in the painting's center, while the six chrysanthemum blooms open above in a rough "V" shape that again leads the viewer's eye downward and toward the center of the painting. These elements create a repeating, cyclical motion that, as it progresses, produces a unique dynamic by its juxtaposition of temporal and spatial frames of reference. Chinese architecture often harks back, conceptually, to a line from a Chinese poem, "a winding path through a secluded spot." In the scattered but orderly arrangement of lines in the stems and leaves of Sanyu's painting, and the separate blocks of space it creates, the picture space is newly divided and rearranged, and in the winding and returning paths of its lines it creates a clearly layered but connected space of overall unity and harmony. Potted Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardinière clearly displays Sanyu's changing artistic concepts: the union of the potted chrysanthemum, the tabletop, and the background serve in one sense as a simple depiction of a scene. But even more, Sanyu's management of the space is intended to mold and create a very special type of setting, in which the picture space provides a tangible place to which the artist can retreat, a place whose existence is separate from the day-to-day realities of life, where he can pursue the joys of the scholarly life and seek out life's meaning and value. But "retreat" here should not be interpreted as passive escape from or avoidance of life, but in fact somewhat the opposite, in the sense of struggle against the sometimes repulsive realities of the world, to overturn the social values that create them and to forge a new and better realm for living. Potted in a Blue and White Jardinière thus takes a special view of the moments and spaces it depicts, structuring and interpreting them to redefine the possibilities of space within the painting, which contains and implies the positive outlook of the artist toward the meanings of life.
In his essay The Rules of Poetry, Tang Dynasty poet Wang Changling theorized that poetry achieves three different levels, or "states": conveying the image of a landscape through poetry is the "objective state," while arousing an emotional response through a poetic scene is the "emotional state," and the use of poetic depictions as an expression of one's own self is the "conceptual state." From Sanyu's 1931 La Rose to his Potted Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardinière of the 1950s, we see the artist, over a period of 20 years, moving through different states and breaking through into new ones. In La Rose, Sanyu adopts the special aesthetics of space in traditional Eastern painting; building on the three dimensional perspective in Western realist styles, this allows him to inject greater subjective feeling into what would otherwise be a straightforward visual presentation, and to employ a deeper abstract conceptualization in structuring the work. Potted Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardinière returns to the traditional outlook of the Chinese scholarly classes of old, in which the scenic items of the objective world are recast according to one's own conceptual mold, opening its world to a reality beyond everyday affairs. From "emotional" states to "conceptual" states, Sanyu's work embraced the spatial awareness of traditional Chinese landscapes and the outlook of its ancient literati. This allowed him, in his still lifes, to gradually depart from pure realism and create entirely new ways of expressing these scenes from ordinary life.